by Leah Draffen
HE’S A FAMILIAR FACE throughout New Orleans. He can be found playing with his toy train on St. Claude facing Press Street. He’s chatting with his friend via string phone at Frenchman Grocery & Deli. He upstairs at Café Negril. He’s painting hearts on boarded windows down Frenchman Street.
That little boy is Josh Wingerter’s son, Hendrix; and the reason Josh is now a full time artist. Josh says, “I like to implement my son into a ton of my work because he has been a motivator in my life. I stepped away from a job when I found out he was coming.” While Josh has been drawing and painting his entire life, he began selling his work at age 22.
“I started taking painting and selling seriously shortly after an injury. Most of my time was spent in sports and exercise until I blew out my knee. I returned to drawing and painting mostly because I was limited after surgery. I had to be in bed for three months. There’s not that much Netflix for anyone,” he laughs. “After a couple weeks I started to draw and paint some pieces and was lucky enough to have someone stumble upon me and purchase those pieces. That gave me some more initiative to continue.”
At the time Josh was also working full time at Home Depot. He had been there since Hurricane Katrina, but when he learned that he was going to be a father five years ago, he decided to plunge into artistry full time. “I felt like it was my last window. The universe was telling me to do it. Or be Home Depot dad, and I didn’t want to be Home Depot dad,” Josh jokes. “It had a lot to do with time. I had a really good job there, but I didn’t want to work 60 hours a week and not see my family.”
Painting out of his garage, Josh was also working with the Frenchman Street Art Market. “Fortunately for me, New Orleans is New Orleans, and everyone wants to come here. While selling my work, I began to meet collectors and gallery owners that had spaces out of state. Three years ago, I got an opportunity to take my art to Miami for Art Basel and from there met other galleries and collectors. Since then, I have participated every year. Most of my work translates well to cities like Los Angeles, Miami and DC.”
Locally, Josh has built a rapport with local businesses throughout the city. When he began selling, he went door to door to many galleries. Josh reflects, “In my early days, most of the galleries didn’t want to feature my work. They didn’t like my content, so I started going to local businesses—coffee shops, restaurants, the things that are plentiful here in New Orleans. Through building relationships with locals in the community, I was able to begin hanging art in their businesses like Who Dat Coffee Café and Peaches Records.
“Because of those relationships, I stumbled into doing the COVID series. When the Who Dat Coffee Café in the Bywater boarded up, I asked Craig, the owner, ‘hey, is it cool if I paint on your plywood?’ He said, ‘sure, do whatever you want.’”
Josh painted a James Booker piece and a Louis Armstrong piece. Craig loved it and so did the people in the community. The next day, Josh decided to reach out to Café Negril with which he has a working relationship. They gave him the green light, which led to other Frenchman Street businesses coming out to ask him to paint on their exteriors. By the third day, Josh had paintings on nearly all of Frenchman Street’s businesses, totaling 98 pieces. Collaborating with a photographer, he recorded the time and locations of each piece. (There’s a book in the works.)
Like most of Josh’s experiences, the drive-thru gallery’s positive feedback snowballed into other opportunities. He reached out to Lowe’s who donated plywood and David Art Center who chipped in on paint and supplies. He partnered with Who Dat Café, Peaches Records, The Art Garden and The Roots of Music NOLA. In total, Josh painted and donated 240 plywood pieces raising $57,000. Those funds benefited such groups as out of work artists, frontline service industry workers, homeless individuals, musicians, and The Roots of Music youth.
“I’m just painting. The idea that I can sit down and work on something that will help somebody else is very cool,” Josh adds. In addition to Josh’s recent philanthropic work, every year he “adopts” one or two public schools. “I’ll ask their art teacher what kind of art supplies they need then I help them stock up. I think it’s important to give back.”
Josh’s gives credit to his own high school art teacher, Keith Eccles, for his art career. “He encouraged me to become an artist even in high school. When I was in college, I would hang out at his studio and he would let me work on a couple of things. He was probably the first person in my life that told me I could do it if I put in the time and energy that I put into everything else.” Keith is on Josh’s list of artists that inspire him. Other locals include Ashley Longshore and Brandan “B-mike” Odums.
“I love Ashley Longshore because she just makes me happy. I have admiration and respect for B-mike for what he does and the scale of which he does it. From a personal standpoint, not only do they inspire me, they give me the courage to chase the dream of being an artist, because they do it so grandly but make it look so organic. Of course, the list goes on because most artists inspire me.”
Because Josh did not go to school for art, he takes the time to independently study and meet with the many artists he admires. “The best description of my work is evolving. Every year it looks a little bit different and any time I study an artist that does tend to drip over onto my canvas.
“I hope that continues because change in my head means growth. So, if I’m continuously changing, I’m continuously growing.”
That movement and change is equally represented in his work. Josh uses many different materials from spray paint to inks to acrylics. Spontaneous, yet, themed, Josh’s iconic imagery, vibrancy and high color reflects the energy of his subjects. “I like to believe that color patterns in pieces are a representation of the aura of whoever the subject is, but of course all of my pieces do not have that. It really depends on the day. I have days that are black and white, but the majority of my days are heavy color with a lot of contrast and movement because I feel like that’s what the world is and we’re just moving through it.”
He adds, “I like for there to be a sense of chaos in the piece that leads you to the subject.” Josh’s subjects are things and people that inspire him. “I listen to Jimi Hendrix, so I paint Jimi Hendrix. People identify with my pieces in different ways. For me, Jimi Hendrix was my introduction to music, and love. Someone else may see something different.”
Josh is taking the idea of those interactions into his own gallery space that is soon to open on the Westbank. “We’re hoping to host different artists from out of state and country, and we’re planning large scale gallery shows for when everything begins to open back up. I would like for it to be an interactive art event. It won’t just be pieces on the wall.”
One thing’s for sure. That little boy who sparked his dad’s success as an artist will be there. “He’s a sneaky little guy and he’s going to continue to be a fixture in all of my work. When I started, I didn’t know if I was going to be successful, but I knew that I was going to have time with my son and that was my motivating factor.”